gavel on a book

Initial allegations are Justin Ross Harris was sexting while his son was dying in a hot car. If this was a Pennsylvania case, what would be the outcome? How should Harris be charged? Would there be a conviction?

Right now we do not have enough information about Harris to fully understand how he should be charged. The big turn in this case depends on whether investigators and prosecutors can prove beyond a reason doubt (or even think they can), that Harris intentionally left the kid in the car.

If Harris was a terrible parent and simply left the kid in the car and his acts are grossly negligent, then the charges should be much different.

In Pennsylvania, there are three relevant murder statutes:

§ 2502. Murder. (a) Murder of the first degree.–A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the first degree when it is committed by an intentional killing. (b) Murder of the second degree.–A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the second degree when it is committed while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony. (c) Murder of the third degree.–All other kinds of murder shall be murder of the third degree. Murder of the third degree is a felony of the first degree.

§ 2503. Voluntary manslaughter. (a) General rule.–A person who kills an individual without lawful justification commits voluntary manslaughter if at the time of the killing he is acting under a sudden and intense passion resulting from serious provocation by: (1) the individual killed; or (2) another whom the actor endeavors to kill, but he negligently or accidentally causes the death of the individual killed. (b) Unreasonable belief killing justifiable.–A person who intentionally or knowingly kills an individual commits voluntary manslaughter if at the time of the killing he believes the circumstances to be such that, if they existed, would justify the killing under Chapter 5 of this title (relating to general principles of justification), but his belief is unreasonable.

§ 2504. Involuntary manslaughter.(a) General rule.–A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of the doing of an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, or the doing of a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, he causes the death of another person.

The question is whether this is Murder 1, Murder 3, or Involuntary Manslaughter. I do not think that Murder 2 or Voluntary Manslaughter applies in this case. Murder 2 could come back into play depending on whether there is some type of felony for bad parenting. These types of felonies do exist in PA, but nothing is coming to mind to apply to this matter.

This case is a clear example of gross negligence on its face. Therefore if this happened in Pennsylvania, Harris should not only be charged with Involuntary Manslaughter, but he is clearly guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, unless somehow he has a defense to gross negligence, like someone else left the kid in the car, etc.

Certainly, if any evidence is found that Harris wanted to kill the kid, or had expressed a desire to no long be the parent of the kid, then most prosecutors would charge Murder 1 and Murder 3 and see what sticks.

Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.